When HarmoKnight was finally announced to be coming over from Japan I was really excited. I love the genre of auto side-scrollers and am grateful for Nintendo to allow it’s developers the chance to take new and interesting risks on the digital front. March was an excellent time to be a Nintendo fan, with a slew of titles across both platforms; was HarmoKnight the way to send March out with a bang or a whimper?
The story in HarmoKnight could have been a throw away but is instead unique in its execution. The setup involves a boy named Tempo who spends his day with his friend rabbit Tappy and training to become a knight of Melodia, a titular HarmoKnight. On a day like any other, a comet crashes and creatures called Noizoids arrive to spread chaos across the land. Tempo’s master, Woodwin, instructs him to take the legendary music staff to Symphony City for help to defeat the enemies as Tempo is too inexperienced to help.
The story has potential to be unique and engrossing but the actual dialogue between levels is merely passable in fleshing out the characters and could have been completely forgettable but surprisingly the presentation made it stick with me. The game starts out with bright blues and greens, cheery music and has a sense of childhood-like innocence. As the game progresses and the stakes raise, the music becomes more intense and crescendos into a fully epic score straight out of a fantasy game. Each area houses its own theme with unique instruments, further punctuating a consistent world. There are many games that use their environments to tell a tale; games like Silent Hill and Bioshock use it’s world to tell a lot of the story, but HarmoKnight is the only game that comes to mind in which the music and graphics flesh out the world and story.
The graphics themselves are also lovely. Each zone has its own look that fits together with the music wonderfully. As the game progresses so does the character of Tempo; starting off as a innocent child but ends up more mature. This is shown off not only with a change in the musical tone but also with the colours. Towards the end of the game the areas become lively with hellish reds, dark purples and muted blues to convey a sense of growing up without using any dialogue whatsoever.
Besides tasteful use of colours, character animations are fluid and full of personality. Environments are similarly full of detail and their own personality. Everything about this game from the screen scrolling to the frame rate is silky smooth. Enemy design is top notch, but that shouldn\’t come as a surprise from the developers of the Pokemon series. The cutscenes are reminiscent of a comic book (and for fear of repeating) with it’s great use of colours and dark outlines of characters and objects. HarmoKnight is the best looking exclusive on the eshop that I\’ve encountered.
The gameplay in HarmoKnight could not be any simpler. Traditional levels involve two buttons: jumping and attacking. The levels scroll automatically and it is up to the player to avoid or attack obstacles and enemies with the right timing. The simplicity of the controls don\’t detract from any enjoyment and the way it focuses on matching the timing with the rhythm of the music rather then just reaction time is a fresh concept for the sub-genre. While running, the “B” button jumps over pits, rolling rocks, or making Tempo bounce high off drums. Pressing the “A” button will attack enemies with a swing of the staff.
With only two options in gameplay, it seems like HarmoKnight could be really easy but I was surprised as just how brutal some later levels could be. As the game progresses, the rhythm of each stage will get faster and if the music is at a higher pace then the obstacles will appear at a faster rate. Playing with the volume off is more difficult so I definitely recommend playing with sound on. Hitting enemies or jumping over gaps is easy enough, but successfully landing a perfect blow to get a Musical Note isn\’t so easy. Each enemy will make a noise that complements the stage’s music, for example whistling while jumping. In order to get a Musical Note, players must hit the enemy when either the whistling stops or starts again. Each enemy and obstacle as a unique contribution to the music and the players must listen to get the high score.
The exception to these levels are the boss fights and mini bosses. These particular stages take the form of “memorize and execute”. A voice will say the words “hit”, “jump”, “left” or “right” in a certain rhythm. Players must then press the buttons with the exact rhythm. At first these are simple, but later stages can be difficult as they can be long, making it hard to remember the pattern and rhythm and later boss fights involve a lot of trail and error. What else is surprising is how cinematic these fights can be as the cinematography is excellent, setting up engaging angles to give off a sense of wonder.
Another element that adds variety is two playable characters that steal the spotlight from time to time. One character, Lyra, plays as a sharp shooter, lining up targets and avoiding long distance attacks. The other character Tyko and his pet monkey Cymbi is a solely an offensive style with high and low attacks. While they do their job adding some variety in the game, they feel under-utilized with long stretches of the game where they don\’t make an appearance. If a sequel were to be made I hope they can get more fleshed out with more screen time.
Going back to the topic of the camera, in normal stages the camera can rotate to give off more dynamic angles but I found this gets in the way of gameplay. It can be difficult to judge when to jump over certain obstacles when the camera is at an angle. As a result, it sometimes feels like doing the same thing twice will yield different results. I know that’s not necessarily true, but the game can feel a bit cheap at times with the shifting camera angles. The 3D effect does levitate some of the pain, but if the camera stayed in the default position it would have been beneficial to the gameplay.
Nintendo often finds ways to appeal to all gamers of varying gaming experience, and in HarmoKnight they found a perfect balance. Completing a level isn\’t as challenging as going for a “good” or “great” rating. Getting at least a good rating unlocks a Royal Note, and getting a perfect “great” unlocks a faster version of the level. Fast levels are optional but they still offer a lot of fun, especially after completing some later levels and going back to the beginning of the game. In addition to the fast version of levels, there is five unlockable stages based on Pokemon music. I wish there was more then five stages as it was very nostalgic to hear certain music from the older games.
HarmoKnight is a great game that has a few flaws, but if one enjoys auto side-scrollers then look no further then the 3DS eshop. With hours of re-playable fun, great music and fantastic visuals, Nintendo really showed a promising future for their exclusive digital titles.